PRINT September 1993

Cindy Sherman’s Gravity: A Critical Fable

FIRST THE STORY and then the moral. That the story itself concerns a specific act of art criticism attests to the fact that what I understand as the point of this exercise is neither the universally shared nor even the preponderantly held view of the matter.

Earlier this year I agreed to contribute to a projected book on Cindy Sherman. Having spent some time with the work, I then reviewed the critical literature, which divides, roughly, into three groups. First there is the writing of the early and mid ’80s, when Sherman’s art was received in relation to the initial theorizing of post-Modernism. The endless fracturing of her persona into so many cinematic roles was read in connection to a notion of the Death of the Author, which is to say, of a deliberate abandonment of authorial intention as the ground of a work’s meaning, and its replacement with a set of cultural significations preexisting that intention, predetermining and (to use Roland Barthes’ word) “de-originating” it. By this notion the author, stripped of his or her privilege, would act as proxy for all other subjects coming into contact with the work, thereby figuring those subjects forth as radically decentered.

A second wave of criticism soon engulfed this opening one, as Sherman’s success brought her into the orbit of what Abigail Solomon-Godeau has analyzed as the official apparatus of praise.1 Here Sherman’s multiple “characters” were understood as the many facets of a rich, internally coherent imaginative life (Sherman’s), or else of a shared humanity (“ours”) and thus as the embodiments of a fantasy world held in common. That this humanity was not necessarily understood to be gender specific was seen by the third group of Sherman’s readers—the feminist group—as both manipulative of the strategic meaning of her art and deliberately oblivious to the considerable and important volume of feminist analysis attached to it. That analysis, having begun by pointing to Sherman’s success in putting on display the culture industry’s production of female stereotypes as so many “images of woman,” went on (several years later) to understand her enterprise in far more (Lacanian) psychoanalytic terms, and to see her as manifesting the fact that, within patriarchal culture, woman is nothing but “image.” Terms like “masquerade” and “male gaze” figure importantly in this latter analysis, as do texts like Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”2 Indeed, Mulvey herself has contributed a substantial essay to the Sherman critical literature.3

However, no matter how deeply divided these latter two positions are over the politics of the subject, they are surprisingly and, to my mind, distressingly congruent in relation to what might be called the poetics of the object. For whether in the service of feminism or humanism, Sherman’s work is understood by both camps as the production of “characters.” And whether these characters are seen as projecting the simulacral condition of the “masquerade” or as emanations of profoundly shared fantasy, both camps find them instantly intelligible, and construe the act of criticism as one of “reading” them novelistically. So, from the humanist side of the ledger, the “Untitled (Film Stills),” 1977-80, will be described in terms of “a woman walking down a dark street at night; another, scantily clad, with martini in hand, peering out the sliding glass door of a cheap motel.”4 From the other side, Mulvey will write of the “centerfold” series, 1981-82, “The young women that Sherman impersonates may be daydreaming about a future romance, or they may be mourning a lost one. They may be waiting, in enforced passivity, for a letter or telephone call. Their eyes gaze into the distance. They are not aware of their clothes, which are sometimes carelessly rumpled, so that, safe alone with their thoughts, their bodies are, slightly, revealed to the viewer.”5

I am aware, of course, that many readers who have gotten this far in my account will now be tempted to throw the magazine down, in disgust at my having overlooked the simple but crucial separation between the “characters” each camp describes: for the humanist critic, the personae are imagined as freestanding and autonomous, whereas for the feminist, the very situation of the masquerade means that the woman in question is a function of a male, voyeuristic gaze—hence her passivity, her dependence, her condition as fetish, as “nothing but image” But critically speaking—i.e., in terms of the analysis of the object in view—this momentous difference has in practice been a difference without a distinction. In the one case as in the other, no one looks to see how these various “characters” are produced. In both cases it is imagined that Sherman is a gifted impersonator, an actress, and that her characters are an effect of her transmutations of personality.

Such accounts fall prey to exactly the misperception that overtook viewers of the Kuleshov experiments in the Moscow film academy in 1917, who watched an actor’s on-screen face appear to register eloquent if silent changes at the sight of a table laden with food, then of a lovely child, and then of a dying woman, and thought they were seeing an exquisite performance. It was almost impossible for them to accept that the actor had remained impassive as the camera filmed him in close-up—that his “acting” was nothing but the function of cinematic editing.

Barthes had a different and crueler name for the Kuleshov effect: he called it “myth,” by which he meant the superimposition of a universalizing generalization (in the Moscow example: the fullness of human emotion) onto a specific, limited bit of representation as its second-order “meaning.” The results of myth, as Barthes analyzed them, were a naive buying-into the purported signified of a cultural phenomenon without having the distance, the skepticism, or the experience to attend to the signifiers laboring away to produce the mythified meaning. He saw the victims of myth as the petit-bourgeois consumers of culture, the ones he thought most susceptible to the image world of advertising, and least attentive to history. And, he felt, the consequence of mythical reading is not just a matter of accepting the myth’s formulaic generalization. In the much cited instance of the Paris Match cover showing a black soldier giving the French salute, for example, the generalization describes a benevolent colonialism in which all subjects, white and black, are loyal; but it also has the retroactive effect of emptying out the initial relation of signifier and signified in the photograph of the soldier by turning the image into nothing but an example of a universal law: “All of France’s subjects are loyal; you see! Here is a black soldier giving the French salute.”

Now, the consistent reading of Sherman’s “Untitled (Film Stills)”—all of them, incidentally, untitled—as “examples” of one or another general law (whether feminist or humanist) has meant that no one looks at the initial relation of signifier and signified to see how they are constructed. No one sees that there are, for example, suites of images in which Sherman dresses in exactly the same outfit—same hat, same suit, same makeup—but in which carefully controlled differences in camera angle, framing, depth of field, lighting, etc., produce a wholly different cinematic style each time, one that, in turn, produces a different “character.” Sherman herself is not acting. “She” has no relation to the purported role. The role is instead a function of the cinematic signifiers.

The same is also true of the situations Sherman projects. Mulvey’s general law for the “Untitled (Film Stills)” (as for much of the rest of Sherman’s work) is that they are “about” voyeurism: "The camera looks; it ‘captures’ the female character in a parody of different voyeurisms. It intrudes into moments in which she is unguarded, sometimes undressed, absorbed into her own world in the privacy of her own environment. Or it witnesses a moment in which her guard drops as she is suddenly startled by a presence, unseen and offscreen, watching her.6 Yet it is demonstrable that while Sherman uses many different signifiers (internal frames, graininess, etc.) to suggest the condition of being watched unawares, a signified that would have to imply /distance/ or /disconnection/, she also sets up tableaux in which women in various stages of undress are viewed from offscreen but within a mise-en-scène in which the signifiers produce the opposite meanings: /connection/, and thus no voyeurism.

Further, it can be said that Sherman’s self-induced apprenticeship, through the “Untitled (Film Stills),” in the school of cinematic “styles” played a role in her subsequent focus on particular concentrations of signifiers, as in the case of the “centerfold” series through which we first encountered Mulvey’s reading. For before suggesting any given character in any given state of reverie or passivity, the long narrow strip of the centerfold is a resolutely horizontal format; and this seems to have urged on Sherman the doubling of the centerfold’s horizontality in the production of the signified /horizontal/, a production achieved by concentrating on a point of view in which the camera looks downward. /Horizontality/ is thus not a matter of the horizon line but a function of the floor. And it is therefore concentrated equally in the domain of baseness and of an attack on form.

Visual form, it can be said, is generally a function of the verticality of the visual field. Form coheres for the human viewer as he or she looks outward from a standing position; it hovers in a plane parallel to the upright body. Form organizes itself, as the Gestalt psychologists would explain, in an alignment that is “fronto-parallel” to the perceiver. This orientation to the vertical is not, of course, dependent on the viewer’s actual uprightness in any given moment of seeing. The image may be prone on the page of a book, or stretched across the tiles of a mosaic floor. But for the projection to cohere, for it to organize itself as form, its coherence in the subject’s imaginaire is as if vertical.

Many things followed for Sherman from her invocation of the /horizontal/ in the teeth of the image, and, through this, from her summoning forth of the formless. One of these was a concern with formlessness in the guise of excremental types of matter: vomit, mold, trash, all aligned, needless to say, within the plane of downwardness or bassesse. But another was the consideration of how the horizontalizing pull of gravity against the grain of the verticality of form could produce a sense of the erosion of form from within. This, indeed, was the strategy of her “history portraits,” of 1989-90. Here, despite the image’s coherence in its formal fronto-parallel splendor (reinforced on the one hand by all the devices the original artist used to underline its contiguity with its vertical frame, and on the other by our recognition of it as a form already encountered as whole), we are forced to connect as well to the feeling of gravity pulling downward on the various prostheses with which the bodies are outfitted—the fake, pendulous breasts, the protruding foreheads, the false noses—and to sense the image not in terms of the complete gestalt, but as corrupted from within by the forces of the horizontal.

Clearly, other Sherman series focus on other signifiers. But I have concentrated on her production of /horizontality/ in this context because the “woman as image” reading of Sherman’s work has been particularly oblivious to its presence and, specifically, to the way it challenges the perquisites of the “male gaze.” For what does that gaze seek to summon, again and again, if not the completeness, the formal coherence, and the vertically of the visual? How does the fetish act if not to veil, through masquerade, all threats to this wholeness? And what is fundamental to the operations of the veil if not its fronto-parallel orientation to the upright body?

In constantly reading Sherman’s work mythically, which is to say, as an example of how the Male Gaze works—“You see! There is the woman fetishized in the beam of the gaze”—feminist criticism fails to notice that Sherman’s art drops the veil. Not only does this criticism thereby miss the operations of an extraordinary work of imaginative projection, but, blinding itself to anything outside the vertical register of the image/form, it repeats, at the level of analysis, the very fixity it describes as operating the Male Gaze at the level of its social effects.

Moral: if responsible criticism has anything to tell us, it is that there is more in heaven and earth than the mythic effects of your philosophy.

Postscript: Of the many objections to what I’ve written here, I would like to reply before the fact to just three. The first will be that I seem to be returning to the outmoded and wholly suspect notion of an unmediated relation to the work of art. The second will be that I seem to be reverting to the idea of the critic as the privileged, accurate reader, the one who claims to be able to intercept the author’s intention and thus the work’s “truth.” The third will be that even if I am calling for nothing more than a certain level of competence in reading works of art, that very call marginalizes readers whose lack of access to the cultural center has deprived them of such competence.

My answer to the first objection is that I do not think that Barthes, in conducting the reading he performed in S/Z, was organizing an unmediated response to the work of art. Looking at signifiers would seem to be the opposite of the kind of epiphanic experience that a phenomenology of art calls for. As for the second, the idea of reading gives the author no particular privilege as origin of the work, and guarantees the reader no special status as revealer of the text’s (one) truth. But it does ask one to be truthful about one’s account of the text. As for the third, I really have no answer, except that I do not think it is relevant to the case. The feminist critics who have consumed Sherman’s work as myth are not marginal to what has become mainstream cultural debate, nor is Sherman marginal to the centers of cultural power. So there is no reason for any special pleading about levels of competence.

Rosalind E. Krauss



1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Suitable for Framing: The Critical Recasting of Cindy Sherman,” Parkett no. 29, 1991, pp. 112-15.

2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 no. 3, 1975. Republished in Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 14-26.

3. Mulvey, “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman,” New Left Review no. 188, July/August 1991, pp. 136-50.

4. Lisa Phillips, “Cindy Sherman’s Cindy Shermans,” in Cindy Sherman, Cindy Sherman, exhibition catalogue with essays by Phillips and Peter Schjeldahl, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987, p. 14.

5. Mulvey, “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” p. 142.

6. Ibid., p. 141.